* His first game as a manager came against Pep Guardiola. His first win as a manager came against the same opponent. His first win in the Premier League came against Manchester City. Mauricio Pochettino had even inflicted upon Guardiola his first defeat as a Premier League manager last October.
With such an intrinsic link to both this coach and this team, many felt Pochettino had a chance of halting City’s record winning run at 15. The Argentinean’s style has countered the Spaniard’s to perfection before; could history repeat itself?
Not even close. Tottenham had their chances, Harry Kane forcing Ederson into one excellent second-half save. But aside from a brief patch after half-time, they failed to keep the pace of the league leaders. The temptation would be to dedicate each of these conclusions to every victory in their record-breaking run, but I will try and keep them about this enthralling 90 minutes only.
City have now beaten all manner of opponents: teams that are intent only on defending; teams that will defend but counter when possible; teams that prioritise set-pieces; teams that attack with reckless abandon; and now, in Tottenham, a team that tried to play them at their own game. Spurs tried to match them toe-to-toe, but were wearing shoes about five sizes too small.
* Tottenham opted to take a knife to a gunfight instead of the body armour that Manchester United and countless other sides have cherished against City this season, and the team news might have spurred them on. David Silva had been in imperious form, scoring four goals and assisting two in his last seven games, but he was sidelined for personal reasons.
The last time Silva was left out of City’s matchday squad, they drew 2-2 with Middlesbrough in April. He had also been absent for the previous game, a 0-0 draw with United. Yet the City symphony did not miss a beat without its chief orchestrator. In Silva’s absence, Kevin de Bruyne duly took up the mantle once more. The Belgian was supplemented by Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, then Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva from the bench.
City have struggled without Silva in the past, and have been too reliant on the Spaniard over the years. But Guardiola has built a machine capable of seamlessly replacing one part with another. It is quite the neat trick.
* As implied, De Bruyne was simply glorious. The Belgian created six chances (Tottenham created four as a whole), had two shots, and completed six tackles – the most of any player. He even ran the furthest (12.09km), and completed the most sprints (85).
His goal once more challenges the definition of a ‘weaker foot’, while his ability to dominate a midfield is reaching new heights each week. He might not combine obvious physical prowess with god-given talent as well as Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira, but there may never have been a more complete midfielder in the Premier League.
Most impressive are his performances in this calibre of game. He has now assisted two goals against Liverpool, scored the match-winner against Chelsea, opened the scoring against Arsenal and struck against Tottenham. Spurs tried to target him – only Sterling (4) was fouled on more occasions (3), with Alli inflicting a particularly nasty stamp on the Belgian – but that simply spurred him on.
Possibly the best thing about De Bruyne is that sometimes he's all imagination and delicate touches, and sometimes he clearly just thinks "I'm going to smack this and see what happens."
— Rory Smith (@RorySmith) December 16, 2017
“I have no words to describe his performance today,” Guardiola said post-match. At this stage, we’re struggling too.
* It feels almost curmudgeonly to highlight Pochettino’s away record against his closest opponents, but this humbling does add more fuel to the fire.
Since being appointed Tottenham manager in summer 2014, Pochettino has overseen 18 visits to Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City and United. They have won just one of those games, losing 11, and have conceded 20 more goals (35) than they have scored (15). It is an appalling run, whichever way you look at it.
That sole victory came against City last February, and while Guardiola’s side have improved exponentially since, it feels as though Tottenham have regressed in that time. They were in a title challenge after beating City last season; this demoralising defeat leaves them closer on points to 20th.
* In an interview with Henry Winter of The Times on Saturday, former West Brom coach Ben Garner offered valuable insight into how an opponent approaches this City side:
“City was the most difficult team to analyse this season. People think City play the same way every game. They don’t. They change to what the opposition do even within a game. If you think you’ve problem-solved one of the areas where they’re getting an overload, all of a sudden they adjust and the overload is somewhere else.
“The clever thing they do which I’ve not seen before is that the forward, Agüero or Gabriel Jesus, stands 20, 30 yards behind your defensive line, their centre halves will virtually be on their goal-line and they try to stretch you in every direction. If you press high, and everyone is locked in, they may try to kick that long one for the forwards straight away. If you drop off, they play shorter.”
Pochettino deployed the exact same game plan he has every time he has faced Guardiola. His side pressed high and hard up the pitch, trying to rush City into making snap decisions in possession, attempting to cut off the obvious supply lines, and absolving Kane and Son Heung-min of their defensive duties to let them attack with numbers if the opportunity presented itself.
But in Ederson, Guardiola finally has a weapon with which to combat this approach. The Brazilian’s reflexes, composure and short passing have been praised this season, but his ability to kick the ball from box to box is crucial. It is not just the accuracy but the trajectory, the ball arrowed into the path of a teammate instead of floated in. It gave Tottenham less time to react, and City more time to attack. Even a second or two can be critical when up against such brilliance.
It also allowed the hosts to bypass the press on countless occasions, including one moment in the second minute. Surrounded by three Tottenham players, Ederson picked out Walker with consummate ease on the halfway line. Even with that early warning sign, Tottenham never found an answer.
* The key battle was earmarked as Walker against Danny Rose, the Tottenham defector against the former teammate who had flirted with following that same path. Yet it was on the other flank that the most crucial head-to-head clash was played out.
For many, Kieran Trippier was the ideal, ready-made replacement for Walker in the summer. Serge Aurier arrived from Paris Saint-Germain, but Trippier had earned the opportunity to establish himself in the first team. Yet this was a game that brutally exposed his defensive deficiencies when forced on the back foot.
Sane tormented Trippier throughout. He completed a match-leading six dribbles, while Trippier dispossessed the German just once. The 27-year-old is the correct option to start against teams that sit deep and defend – he offers an extra dimension in attack with his delivery – but against teams happier to take the initiative, he struggles. It is no coincidence that Tottenham were beaten by Chelsea in August, Arsenal in November and against City here with Trippier starting.
* Of all the threats City pose throughout their side, the danger they create from corners is often overlooked. The opposition can lock all the doors, reinforce all the windows, turn on the burglar alarm and notify the emergency services, but when constantly panicking about every possible way to keep the most dangerous of intruders out, one can easily forget the most obvious risk: the key left under the doormat.
It was telling that Sane allowed the ball to roll out of play in the 14th minute when the winger was in perfect place to keep it in and deliver a cross to the two waiting forwards. Trippier opted not to challenge the German, and deemed the threat to be diminished from a set-piece, rather than allowing City to have the ball in play. How wrong he was.
Sane delivered the subsequent corner, and Ilkay Gundogan strolled unmarked onto the penalty spot, stooped and headed home past Hugo Lloris. It was laughable defending, the third goal from a corner that Tottenham had conceded in their last four games. It was clinical attacking, the ninth goal that City had scored from a set-piece this season – the most of any club.
* ‘Many athletes fear a torn A.C.L. more than any other injury. It is not as visibly painful, or as gruesome, as a broken bone, but it is much more menacing. Not so long ago, it was more often than not the end of a career; even now, many who suffer it find they are never quite the same.’
If Rory Smith’s brilliant interview with Gundogan did not encourage sympathy for a player fighting a constant battle with injuries, the celebration for his goal surely did. A broad smile was etched across the German’s face as he opened the scoring, and it was the early icing on an accomplished performance. After recovering from his third separate long-term injury earlier this year, it was difficult not to feel a pang of joy.
* City were eventually awarded their penalty, but felt aggrieved not to have been given one sooner. Rose’s push on Eliaquim Mangala in the first half seemed innocuous, but only because the Frenchman did not follow it by diving to the ground and appealing to Craig Pawson.
Pawson’s performance was widely criticised, the referee failing to send off Nicolas Otamendi following a kick to Kane’s face, and not offering the same treatment to either Kane or Alli for late, dangerous tackles in the second half. But officials do have thankless jobs, and each were judgement calls as opposed to absolute certainties.
The only issue, as ever, is in consistency. When similar events receive different punishments from different officials, it is understandable. Not everyone shares the same opinion. But it would be intriguing to hear what Pawson saw when giving a penalty to Everton for Dejan Lovren’s push on Dominic Calvert-Lewin last week that he did not here. Both were penalties, yet only one was deemed as such.
* Tottenham’s biggest success was barely maintaining a grip on the game so late on. De Bruyne eventually doubled City’s lead in the 70th minute with a fierce strike, and Jesus missed a penalty five minutes later. Sterling inexplicably failed to convert the rebound.
Only then did Pochettino make a substitution. By the time Erik Lamela was brought on, the game was almost lost. Moussa Sissoko then emerged four minutes after City scored their third, and the fourth came one minute after Ben Davies replaced Rose. Between them, the substitutes completed three of their attempted six passes, and did not contribute a single tackle or shot. Considering they were introduced when City had recovered from their second-half blip and not during, they can hardly be blamed.
Their ineffectiveness did continue Pochettino’s latest trend. He has now made 79 substitutions in all competitions this season, resulting in a measly return of one goal and one assist. Considering he had £106million worth of talent on the bench, the issue is in how they are being used.
* The fact that Pochettino now has squad options should, in theory at least, be enough to play on the mind of those under-performing players in the first team. Yet Alli was once again one of Tottenham’s worst players, failing to contribute even slightly in their attempts to topple City.
The 21-year-old did not have a single shot, did not create a single chance and did not complete a single dribble. His frustration manifested itself in a second-half stamp on De Bruyne, for which he was lucky to be only booked. For the fourth straight league game this season he was substituted, having failed to complete 90 minutes on only five occasions in the previous 31 games.
As with Kane, Pochettino’s refusal to drop his struggling players, instead opting to try and play them back into form, is admirable, but at this stage simply looks foolish. Alli is regressing with each passing game instead of improving.
* Sterling was at the opposite end of the scale to Alli. He was heavily involved in most of their attacks, but this was a return to his wasteful performances of old.
And yet he ended the game with two goals, applying the finish to a truly sublime move for the third goal, and benefiting from a slice of fortune and poor defending for the fourth. He now has a two-goal lead as City’s leading scorer in all competitions this season.
The 23-year-old showed as much mental strength as he did anything else on Saturday. Having missed numerous presentable chances before skying Jesus’s penalty rebound over the bar on 75 minutes, he could have wilted; in the past, he likely would have. Yet this is an individual with quite incredible resolve, one who has bounced back in the face of constant criticism, one who was once booed by his own fans on international duty and in every away stadium he visited. This was just reward.
Raheem Sterling was allegedly attacked and racially abused upon arriving at City’s training ground this morning.
— City Watch (@City_Watch) December 16, 2017
* A word for Walker, who was derided by Tottenham fans after trying to explain why he opted to join City in the summer. “I am hoping with the world-class players we have here that we will go and lift a trophy, which is what I want to do in my career,” said the right-back, to which the natural response was to point at a league table showing Tottenham in second and City in third.
Six months later, a brave decision has been completely and utterly justified. Walker has been wonderful for City this season, and was imperious on the right flank against his former side. That craving for trophies is hardly being mocked now.
* Tottenham deserve censure, but there has to be a level of sympathy for a side who were missing their best defender in Toby Alderweireld, and their best defensive midfielder in Victor Wanyama. That Eric Dier is deemed the replacement for both is alarming.
Alderweireld in particular is a devastating loss. Tottenham lost just twice in ten games with the Belgian in the starting line-up before November, and have now lost three times in eight games without him. They have conceded 11 goals without him compared to seven with him. Jan Vertonghen looks a fraction of the player with Dier by his side instead of his international teammate.
Guardiola attracted criticism earlier this season for suggesting that Tottenham relied too heavily on one player. The most controversial part of that statement was that he branded them “the Harry Kane team”, when “the Toby Alderweireld team” would have been far more accurate.
* If any ten seconds could be used to sum up the game, they came with around 13 minutes remaining. Harry Winks glided into the penalty area, avoiding challenges and bearing down on goal. The midfielder then took one touch too many, stumbling to the byline and managing to keep the ball in before slipping. De Bruyne then jogged over, barged Winks off the ball, flicked it over Alli and promptly won a free-kick.
Tottenham had their moments, but City were stronger, faster, and quite simply better. It was not quite boys against men, but it was damn bloody close.
* “It’s way off the beam to say City are the best Premier League team of all-time. They are a long, long way away from being the best team we have seen in the Premier League. The best United teams would have eaten this City team alive. They are not close at the moment, just look at the goals they have conceded.”
Eamon Dunphy, not at all one for hyperbole or exaggeration, continued. “This is a very, very poor Premier League. Swansea are poor, Newcastle are terrible, Burnley are in the top four. You have to take that into the equation when assessing City.”
It is an argument that has emerged recently; it is also a load of absolute b*ll*cks. After 18 games, City have dropped two points, and won a record 16 in a row. Such consistency is altogether ludicrous. And if this Premier League is so “very, very poor”, why are Manchester United and Chelsea, the nearest challengers, 14 points behind? They are playing the same rubbish teams as City, after all.
Are City the best Premier League team ever? It is impossible to say, but they are truly wonderful to watch. Even the average positions of their players against Tottenham is a sight to behold: this is a team awfully close to faultless right now.
City can be praised for many things – none more so than their absolute insistence on maintaining their formation at all times. pic.twitter.com/Kn6kk3n1pG
— Football365 (@F365) December 16, 2017
The Guardiola critics constantly dismissed his domination in Spain and Germany, saying that it did not matter as the Premier League was a different beast. Well now he has mastered that too. The goalposts continue to be moved, and yet Guardiola keeps finding different, brilliant ways to score.